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People like to think that they know Niagara, but there’s so much more to the region than its famous falls. The remains of British fortresses tell the tale of a war in 1812, artists immortalized the river rapids and worn rock faces beyond the falls, and wine cultivation thrives among the far-stretching fields. So prepare to explore the Niagara you never knew.
START YOUR TRIP IN ST. CATHARINES – 1:00 PM
DAY 1 – 1:00 PM: Your long-weekend foray into the Niagara Region starts here in St. Catharines.
Once a hub for travellers named Shipman’s Corners, St. Catharines grew into a thriving city after the construction of the Welland Canal in 1820 brought significant trade and commerce.
And while the canal continues to bring business through the city, St. Catharines has also become a thriving centre for the arts. Case in point, in 1969, a number of artists came together to form the collective known as the Niagara Artists Centre. Now, the Centre features works by local artists in a variety of media, including: painting, sculpture, performance art, and even film. The Centre and its resident artists also put on exhibitions and performances beyond its walls, bringing art to the wider community.
Visit THE ST. CATHARINES MUSEUM – 3:30 PM
DAY 1 – 3:30 PM: LEARN ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ST. CATHARINES.
The St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre traces the history of the surrounding communities, and the development of the entire Niagara Region.In particular, the Museum has collected a wealth of written materials documenting Victorian life and how rapidly the city transformed as the shipping industry forced the fledgling city to industrialize.
The Museum has an observation deck where you can watch ships navigate the Welland Canal as they have for centuries now. You can compare the modern view from the deck with a collection of photographs capturing the canal and its many locks over the last two centuries.
Take IN A SHOW AT THE FIRSTONTARIO PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE – 6:00 PM
DAY 1 – 6:00 PM: St. Catharines has a long tradition of theatre and performance.
Groups of actors, directors, and playwrights have gathered in many places to form collectives and theatre companies, staging bold productions in venues across the city.
The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is the largest venue to enjoy a show in St. Catharines. And whether you’re looking to settle in and watch a play, or jam out to a concert, their roster of in-person performances is growing as they continue to develop guidelines for safe enjoyment in their spaces.
Also look for the return of the Film House, where you can enjoy the best in indie film programming. It doesn’t hurt to stick around after a show, because you can often connect with the filmmakers behind the flick you just watched.
WANDER QUEEN VICTORIA PARK – 9:00 AM
DAY 2 – 9:00 AM: If you’ve been to Niagara Falls before, you’ve been to Queen Victoria Park.
It’s the verdant stretch running alongside the best views of the American & Horseshoe Falls. In the greener stretches of the year, its gardens, ponds, and flowerbeds are decorated with a rotating display of seasonal flowers and the like.
There are a number of hidden gems found in the little nooks and crannies created by the gardens, including a number of memorials to battles fought here in 1812, as well as statues of notable figures like Nichola Tesla, and King George VI.
During the winter months, the park is the best place to enjoy the nightly light shows put on around the falls, illuminating the cascading waterfalls when they aren’t themselves frozen and dazzling in the day.
learn the history of niagara falls – 12:30 PM
DAY 2 – 12:30 PM: Located a short walk away from the heart of Niagara’s tourism district, the Niagara Falls History Museum is something of a hidden delight.
The War of 1812 takes pride of place here, with an entire gallery dedicated to its battles, its leaders, and its impact on the region. But for anyone interested in the more niche history of Niagara, you can learn about the many ill-advised attempts by locals and adventurers alike to traverse or survive a trip of the falls. The museum also hosts a number of travelling exhibitions, most recently one documenting the descendants of those passed through Niagara on their way along the underground railroad.
EXPLORE THE BOTANICAL GARDENS – 3:00 PM
DAY 2 – 3:00 PM: Like Queen Victoria Park, the Botanical Gardens are home to colourful displays and tranquil corners.
Established in 1936, the gardens feature 99 acres of horticultural delights to enjoy, either on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. You can also visit the grounds of the Niagara School of Horticulture, where you can watch students honing their green thumbs in the surrounding gardens.
Also located on the grounds of the Botanical Gardens is another world, built for the preservation of butterflies. The Butterfly Conservatory is a tropical transplant replete with waterfalls, thick vegetation, and thousands of butterflies fluttering about the interior. It’s not uncommon for butterflies to come and land right on you, so be gentle if you want to grab a selfie with the winged locals.
stroll through queenston heights park – 9:00 aM
DAY 3 – 9:00 AM: Queenston Heights Park exists at the tail end of the Bruce Trail, a hiking path which winds its way north to the very tip of the Bruce Peninsula at Tobermory.
It’s a fitting spot to begin the end of your journey through Niagara. The park is home to a number of monuments dedicated to Canadians who played a pivotal role in the War of 1812. The most obvious monument is the towering column dedicated to General Brock, but there’s also a bite-sized monument to Laura Secord.
You’ll also come across the Landscape of the Nations, a memorial to the First Nations who fought alongside the British during the War of 1812. There are bronze statues commemorating John Norton, and John Brant of the Mohawk Nation, a father-son duo fought alongside British forces at the battle of Queenston Heights. You will also find the Memory Circle, where eight limestone walls arranged in a sunburst, commemorate the Six Nations and the other Indigenous peoples allied to the British during the War of 1812.
WORK THE PRESS AT THE NEWSPAPER MUSEUM – 11:00 AM
DAY 3 – 11:00 AM: Newspapers, despite what you may have heard, are not ancient history, but they are part of a longer tradition of printing which stretches back centuries.
As the Mackenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum, you can learn about how Canada’s printers produced pamphlets, posters, and yes, newspapers. Thanks to working replicas of a printing press and linotype equipment, you can try your hand at printing the old fashioned way.
You can also learn about a curious case in Canadian history, where William Lyon Mackenzie, a journalist and Toronto’s first mayor, started a rebellion against the British crown, printing his own declaration of independence to found the short-lived Republic of Canada.
ENJOY LOCAL ART AT THE Niagara Pumphouse – 2:00 PM
DAY 3 – 2:00 PM: The Pumphouse is a gallery and studio centre set up in a 19th century building which served as the pumping station for all of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In 1994, it was converted into the artistic hub it is today. Now, the Pumphouse hosts a rotating series of exhibitions, workshops and events throughout the year. It’s the perfect place to stop and unwind while picking up a new artistic skill, or to grab a souvenir crafted by a local artist.
LEARN ABOUT CURES & QUACKERY AT THE APOTHECARY – 3:00 PM
DAY 3 – 3:00 PM: you can peruse cabinets full of “miracle cures” and actual medicine.
Located just a few minutes down the road from the Pumphouse, the Niagara Apothecary Museum is a curious window onto the cures, and occasional quackery, which made up the history of medicine in Canada from 1869 onward. The Apothecary, a precursor to our modern pharmacies, changed hands a number of times over the centuries, before finally opening as a museum in 1971.
TAKE IN A SHOW AT THE HOME OF THE SHAW FESTIVAL – 5:00 PM
DAY 3 – 5:00 PM: Your winding journey through Niagara has brought you here, home to the eponymous Shaw Festival.
There are actually three different theatres located along Picton/Queen Street, all with different rosters of programming, and surrounded by restaurants and breweries to please every palate.
You can watch blockbuster shows from the Shaw Festival at the main theatre, easily the largest of the three. The Royal George Theatre, the most recent incarnation of an Edwardian vaudeville house, is the perfect place to laugh along to a comedy. And the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre is where you can enjoy more thought-provoking and experimental pieces set on a stage surrounded on all sides by seating.
If you’re catching an early show, you can grab dinner afterwards and go for a stroll along the Niagara River. If your show is a little later, then you can explore the many boutique shops, galleries and cafes all along the main street. Either way, make sure to wave to the statue of George Bernard Shaw as you go along.
WANT TO TAKE A DETOUR?
Looking for something off the beaten path? We’ve only just scratched the surface of what the Niagara Region has to offer. If you’re looking to take a broader, more winding route, then here are some must-sees:
Located due west of St. Catharines, Pearl Morissette is a restaurant & winery located on a picturesque vineyard in Lincoln, Ontario noted for its striking design by Ontario architects gh3*. Their European-style menu features fresh ingredients sourced directly from local farms and complemented by the many different wines they produce. With glowing reviews in the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, and Bon Appetit, this is a must-visit for foodies of all stripes.
Nestled in the heart of a conversation area, Balls Falls is a well-preserved example of a 19th century hamlet. The village, established United Empire Loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution, features a lovingly-preserved blacksmiths shop, church, and flour mill among other structures. It’s a picturesque door into a different time and place, surrounded by equally captivating views of the Twenty Mile Creek, high cliff faces, and the southern stretches of the Bruce Trail.
Fort George was once a key node in the British defensive lines, watching the Northern and Eastern approaches to Upper Canada in the event of an American invasion. The fort was destroyed during the War of 1812, but has since been restored to its early 19th century form. Now, you can walk the grounds which have been modelled in the manner of the original fort. You’ll encounter plenty of staff in period garb and if you come at the right time, you can watch reenactments of military drills, and mock battles.
This early 20th century, Tudor style manor was built for Canadian business tycoon Harry Oakes. You can come and marvel at the intricate stonework, glare are the gargoyles, and visit the lovingly-preserved main floor of this 37-room mansion. Oak Hall is located in the same stretch of green that hosts the annual Winter Lights festival, and is within walking distance of the Former Toronto Power Generating Station, which is a wonderful Beaux-Arts style building from 1906.
YOUR TRIP AT A GLANCE
Niagara Artists Centre – https://nac.org/
St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre – https://www.stcatharines.ca/en/St-Catharines-Museum.asp
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre – https://www.firstontariopac.ca/Online/default.asp
Queen Victoria Park – https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/nature-garden/queen-victoria-park/
Niagara Falls History Museum – https://niagarafallsmuseums.ca/
Niagara Botanical Gardens – https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/nature-garden/botanical-gardens-2/
Niagara Butterfly Conservatory – https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/attractions/butterfly-conservatory/
Queenston Heights Park – https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/nature-garden/queenston-heights/
Mackenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum – https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/heritage/mackenzie-printery/
Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre – https://niagarapumphouse.ca/
Niagara Apothecary Museum – https://www.ocpinfo.com/extra/apothecary/index.html
Shaw Festival Theatre – https://www.shawfest.com/
This guide represents a weekend-long experience, highlighting one of the many wonderful destinations in the area. To suggest a destination for a future guide, please contact us.
All editorial decisions were made at the sole discretion of Ontario Culture Days staff. The guide was written by Kevin Valbonesi.